A Home in Transition
Montpelier, the home of James Madison–the Father of the Constitution–sits just a half-hour from Charlottesville in Orange County. The estate where Madison was raised and lived after his presidency was recently returned architecturally to its 19th century form after four years and $25 million. Inside the mostly empty rooms teach guests about the process of finding the Madison’s furnishings and investigating Dolley Madison’s decor. The tour allows guests to take part in the restoration, watching as historians help bring it back to Madison’s time.
The estate features the Madison mansion, historic outbuildings and exhibits, archaeological sites, gardens, Mr. Madison’s Temple, forests, a visitor’s center, a freedman’s cabin and more. Restoration of the physical structure was celebrated on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, 2008, and my daughter attended the celebration as a fifth-grade student–with hundreds of others across the state.
Start At The Beginning
The Visitor Center offers an enlightening movie about Madison and the estate. It’s worth seeing before you tour the home. As well, there are displays of archeologically recovered items from the Madison’s. There is also an area of the center that pays homage to the duPonts, who owned the home before the Montpelier Foundation acquired the Mansion. It shows the decorative style of the duPonts and how they remodeled the home–lovingly keeping the structure of the original Montpelier under the redesign.
Stroll through the home on a guided tour. Learn how the home was constructed as a duplex and rebuilt by Madison into the home it is today. See the room where Madison died. See a room dedicated to the restoration of the home. The home is interactive in itself. The empty rooms tell the story of finding the Madison’s furnishings and the study of documents about domestic life at the home.
The gorgeous Annie duPont Formal Garden is two-acres of formal walkways, hideaway spots, all behind a brick wall. It contains marble lions and urns and benches beneath foliage. The garden was established during Madison’s time, but renovated by Annie duPont in the early 1900s. Mr. Madison’s Temple should be revered. I imaged him walking from the home to the temple in the early morning hours to look out over his thousands of acres, contemplating the fate of the United States of America. The floor of the temple would open to reveal an ice house, too. Walk to the Madison family cemetery–where James and Dolley are buried, or the slave cemetery just north of the Madison cemetery.
There are outdoor cooking demonstrations from Thursday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. April-November. Visitors can churn butter, knead biscuits and more. There are additional outdoor interactive activities surrounding the mansion, including a hands-on tent open daily May-September on the mansion’s back lawn, slave quarters’ archaeological dig–open daily April-October, the archaeology laboratory where archaeologists are available every day all year to answer questions, as well as opportunities for kids to dig for treasure, too.
A Children’s Getaway across the hall from Dolley’s Kitchen is open April-October 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is stocked with books, hands-on activities and more for kids who visit Montpelier.
Other Special Structures
The Montpelier Train Depot is open every day all year. The restored 1910-era Train Depot shows what life was like during segregation. The old “colored” and “white” waiting rooms show guests the reality of segregation. There are other African-American exhibits in the train depot, as well.
The Gilmore Cabin was built by a former Montpelier slave–George Gilmore–on the west side of Route 20 as you leave Montpelier. It is the cabin Gilmore built for his family, showing life for African-Americans during Reconstruction. It is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays April-October.
Try to schedule a full day at Montpelier to take in the entire picture of life on the Madison plantation. Additional learning opportunities and interpretors will be on hand during special programs this summer, fall and winter; consider visiting during one of these times.
• July 18 and Aug. 15: Rebuilding Montpelier’s Civil War Huts
• Aug. 1 and Nov. 14: Freedman’s Farm Tour and Confederate Winter Camp Site Walking Tour
• Sept. 17: Constitution Day
• Oct. 2-3: Fall Fiber Festival and Sheep Dog Trials
• Oct. 3-9, 17-23: Archaeology Expeditions and Excursions
• Oct. 17: Fall Big Woods Walk
• Nov. 6: Montpelier Hunt Races
• Nov. 11: Veterans Day at Montpelier
• Dec. 3, 4 & 5: Candlelight Christmas at Montpelier
Montpelier is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. From November-March it’s open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from April-October it’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Adults: $16
• Under 6: No charge
• 6-14 years: $8
• Friends of Montpelier: No charge
This location is laid back…you will find yourself relaxed if you take your time.
Wear comfortable walking shoes and enjoy the grounds.
Watch the movie in the Visitor’s Center before taking the house tour.
Plan to stop off at Barboursville Vineyards on Route 20 on your way home for a sampling of what I think is the one of the greatest red wines from our region (purely opinion).
There is so much more information about the Madisons and the estate online.
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